Irrepressible Ben Jonson, Elizabethan Playwright
History - World Released - Feb 26, 2017
No one ever accused Ben Jonson of modesty—or tact. The Elizabethan poet took life by the horns, consequences be damned. A bricklayer’s son, he rose to literary prominence without benefit of a university education, fought valiantly as a soldier, was jailed three times (once for murder), wrote plays and masques and poetry that were the toast of London, ridiculed nearly everyone, had degrees bestowed upon him by Cambridge and Oxford, and was England’s first poet laureate. Late in life, he admitted that his contemporary William Shakespeare, whose plays he detested, was not only the preeminent playwright of his time, but for all time. Revered and despised, Ben Jonson was many things, but never predictable, never boring. Independent scholar Marchette Chute does not flinch nor blush recounting Jonson’s colorful life, rather she basks in the telling. Written before the age of television, “Ben Jonson of Westminster” reads with the fluency of today’s best yarns.
As with Shakespeare, there’s little to go on regarding the details of Jonson’s personal life, apart from the few records that survive. Historians must do their best, rely on what contemporaries have written, however prejudiced or inaccurate, match up dates in history with the performances of their plays, and do a great deal of speculating. Chute wrote under these very limitations, but exhibits such mastery of Jonson’s considerable output, and possesses such insight into the people and places and events of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, that her subject emerges from the dusty pages of history as three-dimensional and alive as anyone you’re likely to encounter on the street, should that anyone be a poet of very great gifts.
Ben Jonson was the type that no matter how grim the circumstances, he never gave up and always prevailed. As a youth from the Westminster slums, he had the good fortune to be enrolled in the best school in the city through a connection that remains unknown. His second break was being taught by William Camden, who would go on to become one of the most foremost scholars of his age. “(I)t was the greatest piece of single good fortune in Ben Jonson’s life,” writes Chute. The goal of the Tudor school system was to turn out “little Roman-Christian gentlemen who could write exactly like Cicero.” That meant speaking and writing in Latin, and becoming familiar with poetry and plays of the ancient world. Some children took to it, some didn’t. Some used it later in life to show off, while a very few went on to become playwrights of the classical Greek and Roman style. Of these was the poor boy from the slums—Ben Jonson. He was slated for a University education at Oxford but was denied for reasons that remain unclear. He may very well have insulted a benefactor. Whatever the reason, his dream of scholarly advancement was denied him. He became a bricklayer like his father, but did not give up studying by himself, “and he ended up becoming the most learned poet in England,” says Chute.
Jonson was conscripted for service with the English troops dispatched to help the Netherlands fight the invading Spanish. The English army was poorly fed and poorly led. Everyone complained, few fought with honor or distinction—except Jonson. He loved the challenge and fought bravely. His prowess with a sword would serve him well later as an actor, where staged swordplay went with the job. On his return home, he resumed bricklaying, but soon thereafter became a part of the Elizabethan theater, first as an assistant to other dramatists, then as an actor, and finally as a playwright. His first successful play, “Every Man in his Humour,” in which Shakespeare acted, was a new kind of comedy in which “each character is . . . typical of a specific humour of temperament.”
Feisty and pugnacious, Jonson became involved in a duel and was imprisoned for slaying a fellow actor. Through a loophole in the system, he was released with the help of a Catholic priest. He joined the Catholic church—a very unpopular move in protestant London—and there is some evidence that he did so out of spite. Twelve years later, when his position among the elite London playwrights and poets was assured, and it no longer mattered, he returned to the Church of England.
His literary work included satiric comedies, tragedies, translations of the Latin poets, a contribution to Sir Walter Raleigh’s “History of the World,” and the beginning of an English Grammar. When James I came to the throne, Jonson virtually became England’s poet laureate. For the court, he wrote innumerable masques; but his best-known poetry is found in Epigrams and in some well-known songs.
Jonson held up to ridicule the foibles he saw. For joining two fellow poets in writing a play which laughed at the peculiarities of the Scottish courtiers, he was imprisoned yet again, but for a short time.
While Jonson included Shakespeare among his friends, he thought very little of the Bard’s plays. Jonson always adhered closely to the rules governing Greek and Roman tragedies and comedies. He studied history, learned geography, and sweated over the details, while Shakespeare relied very loosely on often sketchy history and more or less made it up as he went along. Shakespeare was writing to please himself, says Chute, while Jonson was writing for a very small elite of Latin and Greek scholars who adored him. It wasn’t until late in his career that Jonson loosened his grip on the rules governing the plays of the ancient world, and became more flexible with the plays he wrote for the London stage.
Several years after Shakespeare’s death, the publishers of the First Folio approached Jonson to write a few lines of appreciation. Jonson had every reason to balk at such an offer. In Chute’s words, the Bard “had been careless about his sources, brought in farce and dances and melodrama to amuse the lowest elements in his audience, and in general had produced an untidy, sprawling body of work that a true classicist could only regard with something approaching despair.” Still, there was something in Shakespeare’s plays that touched the genius within him. Above all else, Jonson was an honest man. When he sat down to write an homage, it was from the heart:
“Triumph, my Britain, thou has one to show / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. / He was not of an age, but for all time.”
“This judgement of Jonson’s is the only contemporary piece of writing on Shakespeare that assigns him the position he now holds,” writes Chute.
Jonson’s later years were difficult. Charles I came to power after James I death, and at first Jonson was out of favor. Gradually, he assumed his old place as honored poet laureate, and was again writing Masques for royalty. Jonson then suffered a stroke. While he continued to write, it was now with more difficulty. With his output falling off, money became a problem. While he didn’t have to resort to begging for money, to a man of Johnson’s pride, it felt that way. He passed away in 1637, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. While there wasn’t the available funds to create a memorial suitable to a man of his stature, these few words carved in marble at the time remain unchanged and seem fitting: “O RARE BEN JONSON.”
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